By Melanie Redman, A Way Home Canada and Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
We are pleased to announce that the UN Economic Commission for Europe has established the Toronto Centre of Excellence (TCE) on Youth Homelessness Prevention at York University. More than three years in the making, we couldn’t be more honoured to represent Canada across the UNECE’s Member States.
Hosted by York University and co-led by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, A Way Home Canada and our Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab, the TCE presents an important opportunity to work internationally to contribute to the transformation of how we respond to and prevent youth homelessness.
The TCE is part of a broader network of Centres of Excellence under the coordination of the UNECE with a mandate to engage in the exchange of research knowledge, experience and best practices to support the implementation of the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing. Currently, there are Charter Centres in Estonia, Scotland, Albania, and Norway, with additional Charter Centres launching in Switzerland, Italy, and Spain.
Through engaged international research, the TCE provides opportunities to assess the state of youth homelessness and prevention in the UNECE’s 56 member states. It will also endeavour to get youth homelessness and homelessness prevention on government policy agendas, catalyzing change and improved well-being and housing outcomes for youth and their families. The TCE allows us to leverage the training resources we’ve been developing in Canada on prevention and sustained exits for adaptation in other jurisdictions. The TCE then becomes an international megaphone for the important work we’ve been leading through our Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab, including our Demonstration Projects on models of prevention and Housing First for Youth.
The importance of international engagement cannot be stressed enough. For both of us, the new ways of thinking about and responding to homelessness that we’ve seen in different countries have led to meaningful and paradigm-shifting understandings of what to do, when and why. Learning about the Geelong project and Youth Reconnect in Australia nearly ten years ago led us to reconsider the role of prevention. While prevention has NOT been a priority in North America (though that is changing in Canada), when modern mass homelessness emerged in Australia, their response was not to build more shelters for youth, but rather work to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place through school-based early intervention. More recently, human rights-based homelessness legislation in Wales (2014) paved the way for a preventive approach that we refer to as “Duty to Assist”, whereby local authorities are required to take reasonable steps to prevent or end a person’s homelessness, and have recourse to a wide range of mechanisms of assistance. People who do not have their right to housing fulfilled can challenge this in court. This is what the future of homelessness prevention should look like.
Our international exchanges are also bi-directional. Housing First for Youth, a Canadian adaptation intended to design a Housing First intervention that meets the needs of developing adolescents and young adults, has gained traction in many countries in Europe, at a rate that is perhaps even faster than in Canada. Our international relations have paid big dividends, and we hope to open up opportunities for even more international engagement involving more partners from Canada and abroad.
The sharing of knowledge internationally will be better enabled with the establishment of the Toronto Centre of Excellence. The Centre provides a container for such activities and mechanisms to catalyze our focus on prevention and youth homelessness internationally. The designation will enable us to leverage funds to expand the critically important opportunities for international engagement, co-production of research and other activities. This will enhance the quality and impact of the knowledge generated through Making the Shift in Canada and the entire UNECE region.
Over the coming months, we’ll be working to implement our first year’s work plan for the Charter Centre, including hosting a virtual conference on Housing First for Youth with UNECE Member States. We’ll also be exploring options for membership models for the Charter Centre. We want to thank York University and the Faculty of Education for all of their support to realize the Toronto Centre of Excellence.